To Get Faster, Have More Fun

Your hunch is indeed the truth: You run well when you’re enjoying it, and you enjoy running when you run well.

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Imagine we could conduct this experiment: A sports psychologist puts the members of an adult running team through performance test such as a 5K time trial or a VO2max (maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise) test once every 4 weeks for a total period of 20 weeks as the runners engage in their normal training. He also asks all of the runners to keep detailed training logs that include an enjoyment rating for each run and an overall training enjoyment rating at the end of each week.

I would bet my life savings that the sports psychologist leading this study would find a very strong math­ematical correlation between the rate of improve­ment in fitness and the level of training enjoyment for individual runners. And I believe he might also find that this correlation was causal in both direc­tions. That is, he might observe that increasing or high levels of enjoyment were as likely to predict improved performance as vice versa, indicating that enjoyment influences fitness improvement as much as fitness improvement influences enjoyment.

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The real-world experience of every runner conforms to this projection. In my 20-plus years as a runner, I have always known my enjoyment of running to grow or shrink as my performance climbed or declined, and I have never known a competitive runner who enjoyed his or her running when it was going badly.

Those runners who perform most consistently well over the long term are those who insist on enjoying their running and do not allow coaches, performance pressures, or any other controllable factors to spoil their fun.

There may be no better example than Joan Benoit Samuelson. She won her first Boston Marathon at age 22, won an Olympic gold medal at 27, set an American marathon record at 28, finished ninth in the 2000 Olympic Trials Marathon at age 43, qualified for the Olympic Trials Marathon again at age 50, and set an age-group national marathon record of 2:49:09 at age 52.

Throughout her long and illustrious running life, Samuelson has always done things her way. She turned down an opportunity to relocate to the run­ning mecca of Eugene, Oregon, and continued to live and train in her home state of Maine, despite the harsh winters, because she was comfortable there. “Becoming a champion requires that you are comfortable when and where you are training,” she said in a 2007 speech at the Maine Running Company.

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Research Confirms It

The scientific research on exercise enjoyment teaches us what we already know from real-world experience, which is that enjoyment and perfor­mance go hand in hand. One finding of the research is that the more a person enjoys exercise, the more likely she is to continue exercising. In one study, Beth Lewis, an exercise and sports psychologist at the University of Minnesota, had a group of sedentary adults complete a moderate-intensity workout and then a questionnaire designed to determine its effect on their mood. The participants were then encouraged to maintain a regular exer­cise program. Lewis found that those who most enjoyed their first workout were significantly more likely to still be exercis­ing six months and then one year later.

Interpreted more broadly, this result suggests that we invest more effort in exercise when we enjoy it. For the beginner, investing more effort means not quitting. But for the competitive run­ner, it means pushing just a little harder in key workouts. It’s a much subtler difference than the difference between maintaining a new exercise habit and returning to the couch, but that extra 1 or 2 percent effort that the runner who is having fun in training gives in tougher training sessions may easily add up to measurable differences in races.

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Exercise psychology has also shown that aerobic fitness is related to en­joyment of aerobic exercise. Fitter individuals enjoy exercise more than less fit persons because the balance of positive and negative affect (pleasure and pain) during exercise appears to be determined primarily by a person’s proximity to exhaustion, and less fit individuals are closer to exhaustion earlier in exercise and at lower intensities.

Put another way, exercise en­joyment is essentially the feeling of exercise capacity, so that the more this capacity grows (i.e., the fitter a person gets), the greater the enjoyment of exercise becomes. In a fundamental sense, the world’s greatest runners are able to enjoy running more than the rest of us can. The sensation of speed is thrilling, and the feeling of running effortlessly is pleasurable. Only in the greatest runners are the thrill of speed and the pleasure of running ef­fortlessly combined in the highest degree. Fortunately, though, all runners are equally capable of increasing their enjoyment of running by improving their fitness.

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Again, even though the pattern of exercise enjoyment corre­sponding to increased exercise enjoyment has been demonstrated only in untrained populations, every experienced runner knows that this pattern applies to the trained athlete, too. Speaking for myself, I have always en­joyed running the most when my fitness level has been highest.

In this regard, running is no different from other activities, such as play­ing the violin and solving math problems. We most enjoy the things we do with the greatest competence. Psychologists use the term “self-efficacy” to denote the feeling of task-specific competence.

A number of studies have shown that the increase in exercise enjoyment that many peo­ple experience when they stick with a new exercise program long enough to get measurable results is largely mediated by self-efficacy. In other words, people enjoy exercise more largely because they feel a greater sense of mastery of whatever form of exercise they are practicing. So, practice your running: stick with a plan, challenge yourself, and find ways to enjoy it. The results may not surprise you.

Adapted from RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel by Matt Fitzgerald with permission of VeloPress.

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